'Amour Fou': Cannes Review

'Amour fou,' Jessica Hausner (Un Certain Regard)
Courtesy of Festival De Cannes

Austrian director Jessica Hausner wowed critics with her 2009 Catholic drama Lourdes, which premiered in Venice and picked up numerous prizes, including the critic’s Fipresci honor. Her follow-up is a period piece centered on 19th century German Romantic Henriette Vogel. Cannes can lay some claim to having discovered Hausner. Her first feature, Inter-View, won a special mention honor as part of Cannes’ Cinefondation in 1999. (Sales: Coproduction Office)

A complex and exquisitely filmed exploration of a man's desire to find a woman willing to die with him.

Austrian director Jessica Hausner takes on the last days of German Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist in this film starring Christian Friedel, Birte Schnoeink and Sandra Hueller.

CANNES -- Austrian auteur Jessica Hausner explores the irrationality of dying as proof of undying love in Amour Fou, which recounts the last weeks of German Romantic author Heinrich von Kleist, who, at age 34, committed a double suicide with the married, supposedly terminally ill Henriette Vogel.

Hausner’s latest again bows at the Cannes Film Festival, where her first two feature-length works, Lovely Rita and Hotel, also premiered, though Amour Fou is more closely related to her previous film, the 2009 Venice competition title Lourdes, which had a similar complexity and intentionally opaque tone, allowing audiences to bring their own subjectivity to the material and thus greatly enlarging the possible responses to the work. Here, some audiences will no-doubt be enraptured by the Romantic ideal -- if probably not the practicalities -- of dying together with your loved one, while others will question the sanity of suicide in general, even if the film goes through great lengths to show that the characters’ bourgeois Berlin lives were, indeed, much less exciting than the prospect of dying together with the love of your, uhm, life.

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Like Lourdes, Amour Fou should be a hot item on the fest circuit but its resistance to any straightforward reading will make it a tougher sell as a theatrical release outside of German-speaking territories, though the fact it looks gorgeous certainly won't hurt its prospects.

Amour Fou is set just over two centuries ago, in 1811, the year Heinrich von Kleist (Christian Friedel, The White Ribbon) would first shoot Henriette Vogel (Birte Schnoeink, Lore) and then himself. But Hausner, who also wrote the screenplay, wisely doesn’t get ahead of herself and simply lets the film unfold in chronological fashion. Von Kleist is first seen frequenting gatherings of well-off families, where, between one piano-and-voice recital and another, he talks to the likes of Henriette and his first love and cousin, Marie (Sandra Hueller, Finsterworld), hoping to find a high-society woman who is willing to love him so much she’s prepared to die with him.

Even though his “soul is sick with solitude,” Marie finally rebuffs Heinrich’s exquisitely Romantic but also rather unreasonable request -- “Come on, now you exaggerate,” she scoffs -- and Henriette initially doesn’t seem to sure either, also because she’s married to Herr Vogel (Stephan Grossmann) and has a little daughter with him. But it’s clear from their first encounter that she’s fascinated with the poet, who impresses her when, in a matter of seconds, he uncovers her true feelings, which she believed were well-hidden behind a carefully constructed facade imposed by societal propriety.

Their unusual relationship develops against the backdrop of a country in flux, as taxes have been levied on everyone, including -- gasp! -- the aristocracy, who find this new “French fad” entirely absurd and can’t imagine farmers would rather be tax-paying freemen rather than their serfs. If endless conversations on this topic sound like a boring proposition for a film, they clearly succeed in doing two things: anchoring the story more firmly within its specific timeframe and, by virtue of being so tedious, suggesting why a sensitive soul like Heinrich would feel he’s entirely unsuited for the bourgeois high life.

Hausner ramps up the emotional complexity in the film’s second half -- which reportedly deviates more from the historical record -- with the revelation that Henriette has an illness that causes her to occasionally faint. It is a mystery what exactly she’s suffering from, though doctors finally agree that it’s somehow connected to an ulcer that’ll prove fatal, which has a direct influence on Henriette’s willingness to go along with Von Kleist’s plan. He, in turn, is less than charmed by her sudden change of heart, since the pale young mother might now be doing it for all the wrong reasons.

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The narrative screws of Hausner’s screenplay are impressively tightened further by the way in which it employs the unwitting Herr Vogel, who tries to help his increasingly rudderless wife and who wants to do what’s good for her, which initially might seem to save her but then, in an ironic twist, might actually facilitate her tragic plans. Similarly, there’s a brilliantly written and acted scene at an inn where Henriette and Heinrich are spending the night and they find themselves dining with a friend (Peter Jordan) who thinks they are simply there for some extramarital hanky-panky. The way in which the indignant von Kleist behaves here, calm and reasonable and without raising his voice, makes their last desire and deed both creepier and more tragic. Indeed, throughout the film, the performances have a hushed quality that constantly underplays the emotions, suggesting rationality is an option even in matters of love, life and death.

In another bold stroke, the superbly staged and edited final moments of Heinrich and Henriette emphasize exactly what the two characters were trying to avoid by committing suicide together. What’s finally tragic about their destiny of choice is not that the couple succeeded in becoming immortal together but that everything leading up to their death was the result of very banal actions and shot through with an extreme sense of loneliness.

Visually, Hausner and her regular crew have painstakingly recreated the interiors of the time and her ace cinematographer (and one of the co-founders of production company Coop99), Martin Gschlacht, frames everything in rigid, tableaux-like fashion, with the resulting visual classicism suggesting the oppressive and straitjacketed environment the characters are so desperate to leave behind. The final scenes feature both a pleasing, unexpected sting as well as an eerily performed song about "intimate pain".

In Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)

Production companies: Coop 99, Amour Fou Luxembourg, Essential Filmproduktion

Cast: Christian Friedel, Birte Schnoeink, Stephan Grossmann, Sandra Hueller, Katharina Schuettler, Sebastian Huelk, Eva-Maria Kurz, Peter Jordan

Director: Jessica Hausner

Screenwriters: Jessica Hausner

Producers: Martin Gschlacht, Antonin Svoboda, Bruno Wagner, Bady Minck, Alexander Dumrecher-Ivanceanu

Director of photography: Martin Gschlacht

Production designer: Katharina Woeppermann

Costume designer: Tanja Hausner

Editor: Karina Ressler

Sales: Coproduction Office

No rating, 95 minutes.